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Commentary

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Justice: Awarding emotional distress damages to pet owners whose animals are harmed is a dog of an idea.

June 22, 1998|RICHARD L. CUPP Jr. | Richard L. Cupp Jr. is an associate professor of law at Pepperdine University

My closest buddy is a dog named Shasta. Because I am single, Shasta is the "person" with whom I spend the most time. Although I love and value my family and human friends more highly, I must be honest: Losing Shasta would affect my day-to-day life more significantly than losing any of them. He is with me when I wake up, when I go to sleep and much of the time in between. We play and walk together every day. He shields me from loneliness, comforts me when I am sad and loves me with a purity and intensity unattainable by humans. If he dies before I do, which is very likely, I will be devastated.

In light of this bond, should I be able to sue for the deep emotional distress I would suffer if someone negligently injured or killed my dog? Under traditional tort law, an injured or killed pet is considered the same as damaged or destroyed property: The owner's recovery cannot exceed the pet's market value. I'd have to check back at the animal shelter where I first met Shasta to confirm the going rate for strays, but it's a pretty safe bet that my weekly dog biscuit bill is higher.

However, a recent news report documents what may be the beginning of a trend to allow much larger damages for the emotional distress owners suffer when their pets are wrongfully harmed. In California, $30,000 was awarded to the owner of a German shepherd who was mistakenly shot by a security company employee.

Whether allowing these emotional distress awards makes sense depends on how one views society's goals in permitting lawsuits for negligently inflicted damages. If the purpose were nothing more than providing compensation for every significant harm suffered due to wrongdoing, owners' emotional distress damages for injuries to pets would have to be allowed. We have evolved from an agrarian society, in which our animals' utility was primarily as a productive asset, into an urban society in which our animals' utility is primarily emotional.

I certainly do not think of my dog as property; comparing my reaction to his destruction with my reactions to the destruction of a lamp, a bicycle or clothing would be odious.

But we must look to more than the existence of real harm in deciding whether to allow damages for negligence. For both pragmatic and moral reasons, we must resist the temptation to provide emotional distress damages to pet owners suffering the deep and legitimate pain of losing a pet to negligently inflicted harm.

First, the pragmatic: Allowing emotional distress damages for pet owners would result in increased suffering for pets. The most frequently sued defendants in these lawsuits would be veterinarians; the nature of their interaction with our pets creates great potential for harm if they are negligent. Because the emotional distress pet owners typically suffer when their pets are killed or injured is significant, veterinarians would have to buy more insurance coverage, passing on the costs to consumers in higher fees for service. Many pet owners cannot afford needed veterinary services now; imagine how many more would forgo visits to the vet if the bill shot up drastically. With fewer people able to pay for veterinary services, more pets would suffer with untreated ailments.

The moral argument against allowing such damages is more abstract, but it is also more important. As offensive as this notion might be to some, pets are not equivalent in value to humans. Society's placement of pets on the same level as humans by compensating their loss similarly would devalue humanity.

Unfortunately, pets are much easier to love than humans are. Choosing to value them as much as, or more than humans is certainly tempting. But most cultures and religions that significantly influence American thought hold humans to be uniquely sacred, and rightly so. The riches of depth, complexity and spirituality embodied in humanity can never be matched by animals. Formally valuing animals like humans in the courts encourages an emotional laziness that focuses on an easy form of attachment over one that is infinitely more difficult yet infinitely more rewarding.

This is not to say that we shouldn't love our pets passionately. We should and, on the whole, we do. But we must not, individually or as a society through our courts, succumb to the trend toward equating them with humans. My wonderful dog Shasta is, indeed, my closest buddy, but he is not my highest calling.

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